Our Thoughts on The Wall Street Journal’s Latest Article on Preventing Dementia

The Wall Street Journal recently published a thought-provoking article about dementia and the preventative measures you can take today to vastly reduce your chances of getting the disease later in life. The threat of dementia – and its most common form, Alzheimer’s disease – is real. In fact, one in three seniors die with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, and it is currently the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. However new research suggests that 35% of dementia cases might be prevented if people take steps now to live a healthier lifestyle.

Over the years Ayesha and I have researched and studied Alzheimer’s and treated many patients across our clinics. During this time we have become acutely aware of the importance of a Wholistic approach to health in Alzheimer’s prevention. For this reason, as neurologists we founded the Healthy Minds Initiative (HMI), a not-for-profit committed to spreading the message of prevention, which is critical in the fight against Alzheimer’s.

Lifestyle, not genetics, is the largest indicator of risk when it comes to Alzheimer’s, and in reviewing the research and conducting studies of our own, we are convinced that the most effective way to fight Alzheimer’s is to work towards prevention.

Eric Larson, a physician at Kaiser Permanente in Seattle and one of a group of scientists who helped prepare a report published by the Lancet suggests that there is no shortcut or ‘miracle cure’ required to embrace a healthy lifestyle and reduce your chances of dementia. Larson told the Wall Street Journal that:

“When people ask me how to prevent dementia, they often want a simple answer, such as vitamins, dietary supplements or the latest hyped idea.”

While vitamins and supplements such as B complex, fish oil and vitamin D have their own benefits and may assist in achieving optimal health, they alone are not enough. Preventing chronic and progressive diseases like dementia requires taking meaningful steps everyday to improve your overall physical, emotional and cognitive health:

“I tell them they can take many common-sense actions that promote health throughout life,” Larson said.

Controlling blood pressure, being physically active, a healthy diet, and good sleep habits are all critical in prevention. Strong cognition also plays a role, as many studies show that education and brain-healthy habits like reading and exercising creativity increase cognitive reserve, which the Wall Street Journal defined in yesterday’s article as the brain’s ability to compensate for neurological damage:

“Cognitive reserve [is] a term for the brain’s ability to compensate for neurological damage.”

As Sarah Lenz Lock, executive director of AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health, pointed out, it’s not enough to eat well, or exercise regularly. A combination of all these behaviors are in play.

“It’s about a package of behaviors, including aerobic exercise, strength training, a healthy diet, sleep and cognitive training,” Lock said.

Those who adopt a wholistic approach to health early on are most likely to see the preventative benefits, but research shows it’s never too late, either. Any action taken now, no matter your age, is beneficial.

While amazing developments have been made by brilliant minds like Rudy Tanzi, who is conducting groundbreaking genetics research at Harvard (Mass. General) and Dr. Ronald Petersen of the Mayo Clinic, who is leading innovative clinical drug trials in an effort to combat the disease once it’s taken hold, we believe prevention is the key. That’s why we created Brain Initiative, a customizable brain health platform that empowers users to improve their brain health by making better lifestyle choices and enhancing their cognitive capacity through apps and courses.

Brain Initiative’s NEUROAcademy takes an innovative, technological approach to prevention that starts at the community level, providing education, community support, direct engagement, meal plans and exercises. Nutrition, Exercise, Restorative Sleep, Unwinding, and Optimization (or N.E.U.R.O.) are five pivotal factors that can drastically affect your mind’s health. Our free NERUO PLAN app supports and engages individuals, groups and organizations either in conjunction with the core information delivered in NEUROAcademy, or independently via goal tracking and behavior modification.

With the help of this technology and credible, neurological research our approach optimizes the data that links the five healthy N.E.U.R.O. habits to a reduction in Alzheimer’s:

  • Nutrition has been linked to as much as a 53% potential reduction in Alzheimer’s
  • Exercise has been shown to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s by as much as 40%
  • Stress management (unwinding) helps avoid shrinkage of the brain by 30%
  • Restoring proper sleep in the context of chronic sleep disorder can reduce dementia risk by 70%
  • Mental and social activity (optimization) reduces Alzheimer’s risk by 48%.

Our approach is supported by the very promising Finnish study results highlighted in the Wall Street Journal article, which showed the important role community and technology can play when attempting to get at-risk groups to adopt brain healthy behaviors. The group that received community and tech enhanced support scored between 40% and 150% better on tests evaluating executive function, complex memory tasks, and mental speed, when compared to the other group which only received general health advice.

We know the individual roles diet, exercise, sleep, stress management, community support, technical support, and mentally challenging activities can play when it comes to reducing the risk factors associated with dementia. Through Brain Initiative, we are hosting a collaborative platform, building bridges into vulnerable communities and amplifying our message that prevention IS possible.

Author(s): Dean Sherzai MD, PhD (c), MPH, MAS

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